Kate Larsen on why the relationship is the project

Kate Larsen on why the relationship is the project

Kate Larsen is a writer, poet and arts and cultural consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and cultural sectors in Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom. She is one of the contributors behind The Relationship Is the Project.

Kate is a thought leader in the areas of arts governance and cultural leadership, workplace culture and wellbeing, online communication and communities, and being an ally for inclusion and community leadership of underrepresented groups.

Kate has appeared on The Garret before, speaking about her poetry collection Public. Open. Spaces. and the crisis of arts funding in Australia. You can listen to that interview here.

Kate Larsen on why the relationship is the project


ASTRID: Kate, I'm thrilled to be talking to you at the beginning of 2024. Congratulations on The Relationship Is the Project. I think this is a really important work, and I am looking forward to discussing it with you. For those listening, I would just like to remind everyone that Kate and I spoke in 2023 about Kate's debut poetry collection, Public. Open. Spaces. You can always go back and listen to Kate talk about poetry as well.

Now, Kate, The Relationship Is the Project. This is about the arts and culture in Australia, and I guess I'm specifically including literature and writing and storytellers and writers and publishing in that big broad conception. This is the second edition of the book, and later on in the interview I would like to trace that journey back because that's a really interesting path to publication that is quite unusual. But before all of that, can you introduce us to the work?

KATE: The Relationship Is the Project is a guidebook to working with communities. In different parts of practice over time, this work has been called different things –

community arts, community arts and cultural development, community cultural development. What it evolved into in contemporary practice is more usually called community-engaged work and community-engaged practice.

It's really for anyone who works in any capacity, whether it's consulting with communities, whether it's delivering work for communities or by communities, anybody who's interested in doing that work better and more effectively, and empowering those communities to lead on those projects and to come up with the solutions to community issues and projects from within their own wisdom. This book in particular is through an arts and cultural lens, as you said, but it's really for anybody who works with communities in any sector.

ASTRID: Because most people who listen are readers and writers, and I think a few publishers in there as well, can we further unpick how this book relates to the industry that you and I both love and, you know, met each other in at Writers Victoria many years ago?

KATE: We know the statistics for the diversity of the literary sector are not particularly glowing. We know that we are still predominantly a white, middle-class monoculture. Although that is starting to painstakingly, slowly change, there's a lot of work to do around unpacking what that privilege looks like and unpacking the impacts of that privilege, and that white privilege in particular. This book, for the writing and publishing sector, we hope, is going to provide some inroads and some starting points. It's certainly an introductory text. It's really just about helping people identify what they don't know and provide sign points for where to find out. And we hope in the writing and publishing sector, that might include things like how do we make our organisations, our literary organisations, more accessible? How do we make them more representative? How we make them more culturally safe?

ASTRID: Kate, you contributed to this work yourself. You have written an essay about duty of care and you co-wrote an essay about facilitation. In addition to that, you are one of the drivers, one of the editors, along with Jade Lillie. Can you talk to that collaboration in terms of the practicalities of bringing a book, a collection of essays by many different writers, together?

KATE: Two editions over the now five-plus years! We've been working on this in different iterations. We have, in total, I think, 45 contributors. It was originally conceived by Jade Lillie who curated an original selection of essays, and she invited me to come on as co-pilot and contributor with my original duty of care chapter.

We were very aware from the very first conversations though that it would be inappropriate as two middle-aged white women to be driving a project about community-engaged practice on our own. There were very few meetings right at the very start where that was even a thing, and then we knew we had to bring immediately broader representation and other wisdom into that work. I mean, we've been so very lucky and thrilled to work with Cara Kirkwood and Jax Brown, both of whom lend very specific knowledge and act as a sensitivity readers, Cara from First Nations perspective, Jax from a disability perspective, but also just their incredible work as editors and thought leaders within the space of community-engaged practice themselves. The process has been significant.

ASTRID: So let's just stay on duty of care. That is one of your areas of specialty and you have been publicly, you know, walking the walk, doing the thing, doing the research for many years in this area. I'd like to talk about duty of care in relation to writers and the literary world and festivals and who gets to write what and what is safe for some people to say, etc.

KATE: Such a great question. And yes, duty of care is one of my absolute soapbox topics because, for me, everything comes back to duty of care. Duty of care is a common law principle that we see enshrined in negligence legislation. It's essentially that often unspoken duty that we have to each other. It's sometimes called the neighbour principle, so just that duty we have to each other as humans and as people and as peers existing within a space. But then that duty of care is enhanced the minute we start getting into institutions, organisations and festivals.

So organisations have duty of care to the writers they employ and commission. Boards of those organisations have duty of care to the staff and the artists within those organisations, and so on. Unfortunately, although it underpins everything because humans underpin everything, workers underpin everything, it is an often overlooked part of our work, and it has become increasingly challenging and increasingly overlooked in these last four or five years in which we have been and continue to be faced with multiple global and local ongoing crises.

It makes absolute sense at a time when the world is on literal and metaphorical fire and none of us are our best selves, it makes sense if we drop the ball on looking after each other. We can barely, many of us have been able to look after ourselves during this time. However, duty of care is enhanced during times of crisis, not diminished. That's what I talk about in this chapter.

What we've seen over these last years is, because we have not been our best selves individually, a lot of people in positions of power and privilege and responsibility have not been delivering on that challenge. That's the nature of duty of care in the writing and literary space that obviously looks like a deepening of age-old issues, like conditions with which writers are employed or contracted. You know, some of those have got worse, some of them have stayed the same, but the world has changed around them, requiring a response that hasn't yet happened.

We've also seen further, both a complication and I think a growth, in that question of who gets to write whose stories. I think as a sector, we have really evolved that question over the last certainly 10 years or so. Ten years ago, we saw a really big resurgence of the hashtag own voices movement, for example, and that was a really strong community led movement calling for writers and artists that be able to tell their own stories.

So, most of the famous disabled characters are written by non-disabled writers. The same goes across all marginalised groups, and that has deepened stereotypes and poor representation. But I think we've moved, thankfully, beyond that point of desperation, in that we do have better representation, we do have more people writing from lived experience, and we do have more people without that lived experience doing the level of research and due diligence and working with sensitivity readers in order to represent those communities that they don't belong to in an authentic way.

ASTRID: There is so much in that answer. Thank you, Kate. I kind of want to focus in on the institutions and you mentioned boards in the arts sector. In The Relationship Is the Project, Esther Anatolitis, one of the contributors, wrote an essay about the role of the institution. Building off that and building off your own work in this space and your incredible series of videos and commentary in the last four or five months that look at arts boards and what is happening in Israel and Gaza can we talk about the role of the institutions that surround and pay and promote and sometimes hurt writers and artists?

KATE: It's absolutely such a hot topic at the moment and it feeds on, in part, from what I was just saying that organisations and the people within them are not their best selves, and haven't been for a long time. Also, our organisations, board structures, governance more broadly, leadership more broadly, are not set up to do things at speed, which at the moment, when these crises are coming out thick and fast, means that organisations are being critiqued for hasty responses and organisations are being critiqued for slow or absent responses. Esther's chapter in the book is fantastic and has a series of strong prompt questions for organisations to interrogate their status quo. Obviously, once a crisis hits, it's too late in some ways to have the preparatory conversation. We should be using the good times, as much as they are, to be having the conversation to prepare for times of crisis.

When crisis hits, again, we come back to duty of care, because we quite often, and again, because it's hard, because we're not set up to do it, and because I think we often forget that our duty of care is heightened in those situations. A lot of organisations, and we're seeing this very much around Palestine at the moment, are either, on the one hand, hoping things will blow over and they won't have to make a statement at all, which in the meantime is perpetuating harm potentially to the communities that they serve, and also potentially perpetuating harm to those organisations, because what we're seeing at the moment is audiences and supporters feeling abandoned by the organisations. I think this is heightened for those organisations that are peak bodies, or representative bodies, or membership bodies in some ways, but also theatre companies, art galleries, are going to see people divesting. We're seeing boycotts at one end, but we're also going to see people choosing not to go back to those organisations and publishers and companies because they didn't feel represented or supported at this moment in time.

And, if nothing else, if we, even in organisations, struggle to engage or are uncomfortable with being overtly political or don't want to take a singular moral stand, that's having an impact on organisational bottom line. And that risk, as well as the risk for reputation, is absolutely to business. So that's happening on the one hand.

And on the other hand, a lot of our organisations are dependent, obviously, on public and private funding. And as such, whether it's mentioned explicitly or implied within their governing rules, have to be careful to be non-party political, which is absolutely fine. However, there is huge confusion at the moment between what is non-party political and what is just inherently political.

Publishing and writing, for example, cannot be separated from politics. It is inherently political in who gets to write what, whether they're writing from lived experience, whether they have pathways into publication, who gets to make those decisions, who gets to edit those books after those decisions are made, whether those editors are equipped with the cultural competency or lived experience – and we know across the board that they're generally not – where those books are published, how they're accessed and what are the barriers between those books and audiences, including financial barriers and language barriers and so forth. So our industry is inherently political, yet we've got these organisations who are hesitant to engage with political topics.

This issue in Palestine and Gaza – calling it an issue feels like such a diminuisation, which I do not mean to do – is complicated by a lot of the rhetoric, form which a lot of the media and a lot of the public understanding comes. And of course, we know simultaneously our literary sector is being impacted by an unprecedented amount of media bias and media injustice, which is further deepening this confusion. The rhetoric around all of that stuff is making people understandably nervous, as is the nervousness around not knowing where those funders and or philanthropists are sitting on the issue and how that might impact organisations’ bottom lines.

However, at its core, I can't understand that there would be any disagreement between the issues that organisations are being asked to take a stand on, which is that if we purely to make it from within a literary lens, the writers have a right to life and livelihood, and that their stories, like our stories, like anybody's stories, are important and deserve to be safely told.

If we, as writers, as publishers and literary workers, want those rights for ourselves, we have an obligation as individuals and as literary gatekeepers and organisations to insist upon those rights for others too.

ASTRID: That was really well said, Kate. Now, earlier in this interview, you mentioned white privilege. You noted that you are a middle-aged white woman. I am a middle-aged white woman as well. I want to ask and point out a really awkward, but nevertheless very blatantly obvious thing. We are two white women talking about this and in itself, on probably many levels, it's gross. I guess, how do you navigate that and how do you think about that? For example, when you agreed to speak with me today.

KATE: For all of us who work in this space, we need to think about the word ally as being a verb and not a noun, and that it is something that needs to be constantly practiced. It's not something we can point to and say, I did this yesterday. It's about talking about what we did today, and it's about using the platforms we have, sometimes to amplify like we're doing in this conversation, and sometimes to step aside.

I have as an ally, and I think we also need to recognise that we are speaking again to that monoculture, to that place where there are a lot of extraordinary and talented white people, but who do not have the lived experience of many of the topics that are discussed in this book, and are holding positions of power and privilege that we should, at the very least, be questioning if we are to be those, that active verb allies. I learned so much in the process of editing this book.

I continue to learn from these contributors. This is the second edition, and so we have 12 brand new essays looking at how our sector assigns labels to people often without their consent or involvement, looking at the physical inaccessibility, but also the inaccessibility of our public space spaces to many trans and gender diverse people. In this conversation today, I'm hoping we can help signpost some of this wisdom for people like you and me, because I know I'm a different practitioner as a result of this book.

ASTRID: I do recommend this book for everybody in the industry. One of the things I was excited to see in this second edition is the essays on art and climate, the intersection there, art and disaster recovery, art and climate adaptations. Those essays are by Karrina Nolan, Alex Kelly, Scotia Monkivitch, Claire Coleman and Jen Rae.

ASTRID: That was not a theme that was in the first edition. Can you articulate the idea of why the climate and the environment matters to art and writing?

KATE: The exclusion of climate from the first edition was really an oversight. As soon as we went to print, we knew it was our one major regret. We've gone from obliquely referencing climate in the first edition to very explicitly, as you said, in at least these three chapters, as well as mentions throughout the document. I think that's a very clear representation that climate responsibility, and climate response is a huge preoccupation across the arts and cultural sector. We see that within the general publishing, but also, I think that step change within our organisations too. We're seeing more and more writers festivals, for example, taking up the challenge to become carbon neutral, which is obviously a challenge in festivals that are built on flying people in and out. So it is a clear preoccupation of the sector. One of the exciting things about the chapters in the book is that they approach that issue from many different directions. So we have a chapter looking at climate justice that also touches on that organisational responsibility around ethical partnerships, for example, and divestment from fossil fuels, which is obviously a key trend – trend is the wrong word – a lack of appetite around that sponsorship of arts and culture, which is having an impact, again, on organisational bottom lines, as well as what's being produced in the world. We also have a chapter that approaches it from the other side of climate-related disasters, so how arts and culture can be used as a tool for recovery. And then I think really interestingly, we have a piece from Jen and Claire around First Nations approaches to reimagining climate change through that First Nations lens.

KATE: It makes me so excited, Kate. My final question to you is about the path to publication. It is quite quick, but also long and complicated. Can you explain what happened? Because I think there might be lessons for other anthologies or collections out there.

KATE: So the journey of The Relationship Is the Project could absolutely not have been achieved without public and philanthropic support. It had the support and endorsement of several funders from the beginning, which made that journey possible. That, I think, is an extraordinary testament to the power of public and private investment in that belief in how arts and culture cannot just create the work. We've got two beautiful books. This one is an endearingly chunky book of wisdom. It is a beautiful thing in and of itself, but it's also changing minds and changing lives.

The content is the ripples of that investment are going to go on, I believe, for years to come. So, yes, so through that strategic investment, we were able to commission and pay writers for their work. We don't receive royalties from this book.

It goes back into funding community-engaged work, but paying those writers for their contributions was the most important initial commitment. Without that investment, we would have not been able to walk the talk of our own commitments. We published the first edition in 2020 in collaboration with Brow Books, which was a volunteer-run publisher. Fortunately, they then went through a significant change. So, although we were able to work with them to get to the end of that print run, it became their second best-selling title. When we received support to do the second edition, we had to start all over again. It was an interesting proposal because the book was already out in the world. It would already be purchased by presumably a large proportion of our potential audience. There is a lot of people working with the Australian arts and cultural sector. There's a lot of them working within community-engaged practice. Many of them have bought the book. It was an interesting proposal to then go back out and go, well, we want to do, it's an expanded version. There are 12 brand new chapters, and all of the original chapters have also been updated by the original contributors. We are essentially pitching it to the same audience, or to predominantly the same audience, so we were a bit nervous about that. However, New South Publishing had been the original distributor, and they said yes to the proposal so very quickly.

Obviously, there is a size differential between working with a small volunteer, one publisher, and working with one of Australia's larger publishers. And what that does is also open us up to a broader market. So yes, this is absolutely a book by arts and cultural leaders and looking at many issues through an arts and cultural lens, but it is more applicable to community-engaged work across other sectors as well.

And that's what New South is going to help us push into, which is very exciting.

ASTRID: It is exciting, Kate. Congratulations on The Relationship Is the Project.